Legislature may tweak zero-tolerance weapons law in schools
by Leo Hohmann
September 29, 2013 02:04 AM | 7697 views | 12 12 comments | 22 22 recommendations | email to a friend | print
MARIETTA — After two controversial arrests of local students, one caught with a pocket knife in his car and another with fishing knives, some of Cobb’s legislators say it’s time to re-examine the zero-tolerance weapons law that applies to all public schools in Georgia.

The missing ingredient in the state law, say Reps. Rich Golick (R-Smyrna) and Ed Setzler (R-Acworth), appears to be common sense.

“The public expects the same good common sense they use every day of their lives to apply to the laws of our state, and we as legislators seek nothing less,” Setzler said. “We’ll inspect the current state of the law, but our school leaders don’t like it, our law enforcement doesn’t like it, and we’re finding out the citizens who understand the current state of the law certainly don’t like it.”

After the Marietta Daily Journal reported on the cases of Andrew Williams, 18, of Acworth and Cody Chitwood, 17, of Marietta, the newspaper’s comment boards lit up with criticism over how one particular weapons law is written and enforced in Cobb County schools.

Williams, a senior at Allatoona High School, became the subject of a warrantless search after a fellow student told a campus police officer that he or she saw smoke rising from Williams’ car in the student parking lot and it smelled like marijuana. An assistant principal searched the car and did not find any marijuana but did find a pocket knife in the center console, enough to get Williams suspended for 10 days and possibly expelled, while facing felony criminal charges.

Chitwood, a senior at Lassiter High in northeast Cobb, was arrested and charged with violating the same law after a K-9 dog targeted his car during a random police sweep of the student parking lot Sept. 17. When police searched his car they didn’t find any drugs but they did find several fishing knives in a tackle box left in his trunk from a fishing trip several days earlier. He also had a butterfly knife in the side pocket of the driver’s side door.

Both teens were charged with “carrying weapons within a school safety zone,” a felony punishable by two to 10 years in prison and fines of up to $10,000. This law has been on the books in Georgia since 1981 and has been updated numerous times in the 1990s and early 2000s.

The problem with the law, in Setzler’s opinion, is, like all zero-tolerance laws, it does not require a person to have any criminal intent to be in violation.

While both teens’ parents have hired lawyers to defend them against the potentially life-destroying felony charges, their guilt or innocence under the law may come down to whether the District Attorney’s Office decides to prosecute.

The D.A. does have discretion under such cases, said Golick, who is chairman of the Judiciary Non-Civil Committee in the state House. He, like Setzler, sees a need to go back and re-examine the law and possibly make changes to it when the Georgia General Assembly returns to session in January.

“Yes, you could say I’m among those who want to take a hard look at it between now and January to see what amendments may be needed in order to get common sense back into the equation,” said Golick. “There’s a general policy review, so we have to do the technical due diligence first. After that we’ll decide what, if anything, do we have to do to make sure we don’t have this slow but sure death of common sense.”

The law applies to all knives with a blade measuring two inches or longer, and all firearms.

But it’s not just knives and guns that can land you in jail if found on your person or in your car at a public school in Georgia. A baseball bat or a golf club could do the same.

And it’s not just students who are at risk of being in violation if they forget or lose track of what lies hidden in their car.

Adults who do not have a concealed-carry weapons permit could also be prosecuted under the law.

“The definition of the word ‘weapon’ is very broad,” Setzler said. “A baseball bat, if not possessed for legitimate athletic purposes, qualifies. The bottom line is, regular folk on school property are all kind of exposed over this.”

Setzler said he’s not sure where the discussion about this issue will lead, but he’s going to fight for adding a “criminal intent” element to the law.

“At the end of the day there are common things that adults do — like carry bladed tools or pocket knives in their cars — that need to be allowed and not criminalized,” he said. “We need to have a complete discussion about this. I don’t have all the answers. That needs to come over the next two months. But if there’s no criminal intent it should not be a crime, for students or adults. I’m very committed to discussions between now and Thanksgiving so this can be resolved in the next session.”

Golick also feels the timing is right.

“There’s never a bad time for the application of common sense,” he said.

----

Have you committed a felony lately?

Georgia’s zero-tolerance weapons law applies to all students and adults on public-school property and college campuses, including driveways and parking lots. There is an exemption for adults holding concealed-carry permits, but that only applies to the carrier's vehicle. A “weapon” is defined as follows:

“…any pistol, revolver, or any weapon designed or intended to propel a missile of any kind, or any dirk, bowie knife, switchblade knife, ballistic knife, any other knife having a blade of two or more inches, straight-edge razor, razor blade, spring stick, knuckles, whether made from metal, thermoplastic, wood, or other similar material, blackjack, any bat, club, or other bludgeon-type weapon, or any flailing instrument consisting of two or more rigid parts connected in such a manner as to allow them to swing freely, which may be known as a nun chahka, nun chuck, nunchaku, shuriken, or fighting chain, or any disc, of whatever configuration, having at least two points or pointed blades which is designed to be thrown or propelled and which may be known as a throwing star or oriental dart, or any weapon of like kind, and any stun gun or Taser. This paragraph excludes any of these instruments used for classroom work authorized by the teacher.”

Comments
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Thomas Paine
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October 20, 2013
Principals in Cobb are scared. When they do use "common sense" they get in trouble by the superiors and at least 3 have been fired recently. So it is better to not have common sense and follow policy. Also, it is amazing that we want to justify weapons on campus. There is no place for it on school grounds - period.
Sir Nomad
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March 07, 2014
Almost anything is a weapon on the right hand. Described on that list are many things that are either harmless (such as an airsoft or nerf gun) or are legitimate tools (a leatherman tool is a felony under that justification).

Try to use some common sense, try really really hard.
Bruce Hall
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October 04, 2013
Voltaire said, "Common sense is not so common."
Markstoli
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October 03, 2013
Sue for FALSE ARREST
just wow
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September 30, 2013
Each and every car in the parking lot has a tire iron. That would be a weapon if it was being carried down the hall. But its not considered a weapon when in the trunk of a car. A brick can be used as a weapon but all of the buildings are made of them. The same is for the knife. It is a TOOL until someone puts criminal intent with it. All I'm saying is that these two cases should not be a felony criminal charge. Everyone should call the District Attorney and urge him to drop the charges. And in both cases the cars were searched and they did not find what they were looking for... Just because the students waive their 4th amendment rights parking on campus, does not give administrators the right to go fishing. I propose Cobb search those administrators vehicles and show them that the same silly law applies to them. But then again, no one will. Maybe one of them will have a rescue knife or tackle box in their car as well.
Just Wait
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September 30, 2013
And just who's common sense will be the judge? The kids, who think destroying property is a "prank," the teachers who are more worried about their pay than their success in the classroom, the administrators who can't figure out where the money really needs to go, the school board who spends years trying to determine a calendar or the politicians who only listen to the squeakiest wheel? Maybe that's why "zero tolerance" was put into place. Let the courts decide individual cases and keep it away from all the above.
AmericanMale
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September 30, 2013
Zero Tolerance Laws are designed to REMOVE reliance on common sense for enforcement because not everyone hired as a principal exhibits common sense. Hire better principals based on their common sense as well as their achievements and you can do away with the laws!
Jeff A. Taylor
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September 30, 2013
Alas, thinking and common sense are not strong suits of public employees. If competent enough, they will work to whatever standard you give them, no more, no less.

Besides, when this law was written, was GA under siege from Shaolin temple monks? The obsession with martial arts weapons is bizarre. Further, you can have the 2.25in blade weapons; I'll take a big ol socket wrench, tire iron, or bike chain. Every single tradesmen who drives onto school property is in violation of this dumb law and at risk of being prosecuted by even dumber administration.
Should be simple
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September 29, 2013
We don't even need one month of talking about this. I don't know a parent or student who likes the zero tolerance policies for this and other situations. I'm not sure about the administrators because sometimes it seems as if they like not having to make a decision. It really should be a pretty simple change: no criminal intent/no crime. I'd like to hear from school administrators and central office staff and hope I'm surprised by their replies.
Mike Woodliff
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September 29, 2013
These zero tolerance laws are asinine! I would bet a month's pay that at least one in three cars driven onto school grounds is in violation. I do a lot of fishing. I keep a tackle box in my trunk. It contains knives. If school administrators aren't going to use common sense and do some critical thinking, then it's time to do away with the administrators and legislators. We don't need arbitrary laws. We need people who can THINK!
Common sense Part 2
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September 29, 2013
That will address common sense in the laws. Will the school board now address common sense in its employees? Both recent Cobb cases resulted from arbitrary actions of administrators, with support of campus police. At last report were still pursuing local disciplinary action in addition to the criminal charges.
anonymous
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September 30, 2013
Are you suggesting that a vehicle search should not be conducted when administrators are tipped off that drugs may be present?

The "school safety zone" law classifies a blade of more than 2 inches in length as a weapon, just as it does a firearm. Unfortunately, the law doesn't give officers any latitude. Would your position be different if a firearm was found in the car?
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